Stateless in the Dominican Republic

The saying that old wounds run deep has never proven truer than in the case of the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the two countries sharing the island of Hispaniola. Since declaring independence from its neighbor in 1844, the Dominican Republic has visibly outmatched Haiti economically and in many other respects. However, the Dominican Republic’s relative increase in prosperity has been accompanied by a surge in racism regarding Haitians. Over the years, Haitians have experienced unremitting prejudice from the Dominican Republic, particularly after they had migrated there in large numbers beginning in the past century. The Dominican leadership, reflecting the attitude of the general population, continues to see Haitians as a lesser people and they have attempted, usually in contradiction of applicable law, to thwart Haitian efforts to achieve citizenship.

Stateless people—those without citizenship or nationality—represent a vastly underreported problem and a chronic international diplomatic dilemma. Without a country, the stateless lack adequate governmental protection and are chronically denied inalienable human rights. Stateless people live in constant danger of being deported; however, they lack a home country to return to. Without citizenship, they are unable to receive health care or education, and lack any form of representation in government. For example, in the case of the Dominican Republic, 90 percent of Haitian men work predominantly in the agricultural and industrial sectors, and almost 90 percent of these have either no schooling or have achieved only a rudimentary elementary education. It is unlikely that this situation will change. Without legal status, the growing Haitian population cannot enjoy full participation in society. Through the window into the history of these two countries, and with the examination of the current policies in the Dominican Republic, the social patterns which have merged have marginalized Haitian laborers in the country, leaving them without rights or protection, and their children that are without legal citizenship status.

Treasure Island
The Dominican Republic and Haiti were not always struggling nations, as the Spanish and French had once owned colonies there containing highly lucrative sugar cane plantations, which functioned on slave labor. The success of the sugar plantations allowed Haiti, for a brief period in time, to become the richest colony in the “New World.” This era of wealth came to an end with the slave rebellion in 1791 led by Toussaint L’Overture, who subsequently established the second republic in the hemisphere. Despite winning their freedom, Haitians lost the wealth that the country once possessed and the newly independent state was left as a war-ravaged land. In Haiti, a larger population of slaves existed in the eastern part of the country than its western counterpart, to which L’Overture had extended his revolution in order to encompass Spanish-controlled Santo Dominigo in 1801. This disparity, which evolved into the ethnic division of each side of the island, the future Haiti turned out to be a state mostly of African slave descent and what would become the Dominican Republic was predominantly a country of mulatto blood. Discrimination against those inhabiting the world’s first free “black” nation soon became a widespread phenomenon, which resulted in a pattern of isolation and neglect by the international community, which eventually took on the lasting scars of racism and poverty.

The Republic of Haiti took control of the Spanish side of the island for 20 years shortly after its own independence was established. This lasted until Dominican independence was achieved on February 27, 1844. While there has been no direct and open conflict between the two nations since then, tension and bitterness mounted amongst Dominicans for having once been under Haiti’s heel. The Dominican Republic was plagued by violence and political instability that led to Spain’s intervention in 1861 and a later U.S. occupation from 1916 to 1924. This opened the way for the implementation of a puppet government until 1924. After the departure of U.S. troops, Rafael Trujillo, who had served in Washington’s local security service, was elected president of the Dominican Republic, bringing with him a military dictatorship and a plethora of racial propaganda that targeted the large Haitian community living within the country.

Trujillo and the Haitian Massacre
The central cultural ethos of the Trujillo dictatorship promoted the idea of Dominicans possessing a “Euro-Hispanic” identity in comparison to its reviled “African” neighbors. This dictator wantonly disregarded the reality of the minimal differences in race between the two cultures. In 1937, Trujillo ordered the forced deportation of all illegals—mainly Haitians—residing in the country. The real target was the tens of thousands of Haitians living within the Dominican Republic, the crackdown eventually led to the massacre of the Haitians. The number of fatalities involved is heavily debated, but the highest estimates place the death toll at 20,000. A small population of Dominicans of Haitian descent also fell victim to the slaughter. Although no massacre has since taken place, tremendous suffering still continued due to the lack of rights that left them unprotected and vulnerable to discrimination and even death.

A Divided Island
The unrest on Hispaniola did not end after Trujillo, with the Dominican Republic and Haiti both working to establish political, social and economic stability. After the repeated invasions and occupations of the Dominican Republic by Haiti throughout much of the 19th century, and the opposing efforts by the Dominican government to influence political development in Port-au-Prince in the 20th century, the rift between the two nations has continued to grow. Presently, there are roughly one million Haitians living in the Dominican Republic out of its almost 10 million residents. Over the decades, Haitians repeatedly have been motivated to migrate to the Dominican Republic in search of higher salaries and better living conditions. A great number still permanently resides in the Dominican Republic and works at unpopular and difficult jobs that Dominicans normally shun (i.e., back-breaking labor in the sugar cane fields). Because of this, Haitian workers illegally living in the Dominican Republic provide the back-wrenching labor upon which the Dominican economy, particularly the agricultural sector, is dependent upon.

To this day, the Dominican government reflects a popular manifestation of racism that has yet to produce a president who acknowledges a part-Haitian heritage; José Francisco Peña Gomez, the son of Haitian immigrants who had fled the country as a child at the time of the 1937 Massacre, was the closest person of Haitian extraction to be nominated as a bona fide presidential candidate. Dominicans still shun Haitians when it comes time to their participating in civil society, especially within the political arena, despite their dependency on Haitian labor. An eloquent advocate for political, social and racial equality, Peña Gomez came in third in the 1990 election, after the opposition launched a widespread smear campaign aimed against him during the presidential race that was rampant with racial innuendo. This included the spurious claim that Peña Gomez was committing electoral fraud. He was awarded his party’s nomination again in 1994, but his candidacy was once again undone by racial discrimination. The Dominican Republic remains the only country in Latin America with a large African-Latino population that has no laws that effectively challenge racial conflict between them and its scornful majority mestizo population.

For the most part, the Dominican overclass expresses disdainful contempt for the Haitian immigrants, regarding them as parasitic vagabonds. According to a USAID report, this sentiment is rooted in the Dominican belief that the “sustained influx of illegal and transient Haitians adds to the country’s burden of poverty and further strains the already inadequate health and education services.” Foolishly, this discriminating stance fails to account for the fact that the Haitian population—illegal or not—is barred from receiving the very services they are accused of depriving from the native Dominicans.

A generation of Haitians born under the terms of intense discrimination has emerged in the Dominican Republic. Due to fear of the competition for jobs and resources, native Dominicans attempt to segregate Haitians from Dominican society and prevent them from gaining citizenship. Those of Haitian descent, born on Dominican soil, are still repeatedly denied citizenship and are now often considered a population of stateless people.

Stateless: Without Citizenship, Without Rights
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines two types of statelessness: de jure, in which a person is not considered a national under the laws of any country, and de facto, in which a person’s formal nationality is ignored by the applicable terms of their country of entitled citizenship. Statelessness is a result of a state’s authority to regulate its standards for granting nationality by refusing citizenship to those who are qualified to obtain it elsewhere, regardless of the actual situation. States often deny citizenship to those who have connections to another country through birth, ancestry, or residence, which creates a legal pretense for statelessness. In the case of refusing citizenship to people of Haitian descent—even those born in the Dominican Republic—nationality criteria is based on ethnicity and descent rather than legality. Finally, many applicants for citizenship are rejected because they lack a birth certificate. Those without one are not entitled to citizenship even though birth certificates may only be available to children born in a hospital.

This is an impractical requirement, given how frequently children in a developing country are born at home rather than in a hospital making the immediate procurement of a birth certificate much more unlikely. By Dominican law, any child born in the Dominican Republic, with the exception of children of ambassadors, is entitled to citizenship. These are contradicting principles given that even though the means to access citizenship is only available with a birth certificate from a Dominican hospital. According to the law, all children born in the Dominican Republic would be granted citizenship. Nevertheless, Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitian workers striving to become citizens are consistently denied legal status under Dominican law. Contradicting the statement that citizenship is granted to “all those who are born on Dominican soil,” the general lack of legal documentation of Haitians and Dominican-Haitians, either for not being born in a hospital or, Haitian youths as having legal papers that later had been invalidated, allowing for the authorities to later categorize them under a title of “permanent illegality,” for lacking the proper means to qualify for citizenship.

A 2007 directive by the Dominican Electoral Board is often used as a pretext to seize the identity documents of thousands of individuals, mainly Haitian-Dominicans, on the grounds that the documentation had been wrongly issued. Some 6,000 Haitians were deported in the first six months of 2008; many of these deportations were arbitrary and non-compliant with international human rights standards. This occurred despite the 2004 Dominican Migration Law which implemented a regularization process for long term immigrants that would eventually provide access to citizenship or legal residence to “non-residents.”

The Dominican government’s justification for rejecting candidates for naturalization is that Haitians living in the Dominican Republic have access to Haitian citizenship; however, stipulations within the Haitian Constitution prevent some of these individuals from attaining this supposed citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians abroad are under investigation by the Dominican Civil Registry because their identity documents have been judged controversial.

The Human Rights Entitled to Citizens
Without a nationality, a person is left without the rights guaranteed to citizens of the country, naturalized or by blood. For the marginalized community of Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic, this paralysis remains particularly detrimental. The Dominican government consistently denies any charges of mistreatment of Haitians within the country. The government also feeds indications of xenophobia by accusing the Haitians of triggering violence in the country, making them scapegoats for crime issues on the Dominican side of the island. Police officers, who are charged with the protection of the general population, frequently overlook the mistreatment of the Haitians, and often even contribute to it. Despite these egregious violations, the Haitian government usually does not condemn the conditions that its nationals are forced to tolerate out of fear of losing the remittances sent home by migrant workers to their families back in Haiti which considerably helps to defray the shortcomings of Haiti’s own weak economy. The fact is that while the Dominican Republic is in need of cheap Haitian labor for their agricultural sector, it continues to complain about the negatives of their presence.

In addition to the human rights violations and poverty imposed upon Haitians and Haitian ethnics living in the Dominican Republic, this stateless population is also highly vulnerable to human trafficking. In 2008, approximately 3,000 street children of Haiti were trafficked to the Dominican Republic for a variety of purposes, such as agricultural and domestic services, begging on the streets, slave labor or prostitution. Political, cultural, legal and socio-economic realities in Haiti create the conditions for trafficking to the Dominican Republic, and since 2008 there has been an increase in children trafficked from Haiti to its neighbor. The extreme poverty these children consequently grow up in makes them easy targets for traffickers, who coerce their parents into sending their children across the border in hopes of earning money to relieve their destitute situation in Haiti. Due to a lack of interest in assisting the Haitian population residing in the Dominican Republic, the plight of these children and other trafficked people is ignored. According to Dominican authorities, these Haitians are illegal aliens, therefore no action needs to be taken to protect this particularly exploited and abused category on either side of the border.

Sonia Pierre: One woman working for equality
Sonia (Solange) Pierre is an important voice in the defense of the Dominican-Haitian population. Born to Haitian parents and raised in the Dominican Republic, Pierre began a human rights movement on behalf of the stateless children in the Dominican Republic. Her concerns focused on the inability of these children to attend school or receive health care and spoke about the pressing need for action. She created El Movimiento de Mujeres Domínico-Haitiana (MUDHA), or the Dominican-Haitian Women’s Movement. The main goals of this organization are to: a) push for changes in Dominican legislation, b) promote the organization of Haitian and Dominican women, and c) implement training, human rights, and conjure community health plans in hopes of making the Dominican-Haitian community a visible and legitimate part of Dominican society.

Pierre was at the forefront of the Dilcia Yean and Violeta Bosico vs. Dominican Republic law case at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in 2005, which involved two young girls born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents. The girls had been denied the registration of birth certificates based on their ethnic background and because their parents purportedly had been residing in the Dominican Republic illegally. According to the Civil Registry this meant that they had no legal right to citizenship. The court ruled that the country’s authorities had violated the girls’ rights to nationality and equality in the Dominican Republic. However, the Dominican Republic thus far, has failed to comply with the court’s ruling. Because of her work on this case and her role in the creation of various movements that raise awareness of the undocumented persons living in the country, Pierre won the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Awards. Threatened by her success, the Dominican government called Pierre’s citizenship into question and threatened deportation to Haiti.

Culmination of the Issue
The director of the Civil Registry requested that 126 Dominicans of Haitian descent be stripped of their nationality because their parents lacked a Dominican identity document or a positive migration status at the time of birth registration. Dominican President Leonel Fernández Reyna decided to include a new clause into the country’s Constitution, which states that Dominican nationality cannot be acquired by children of illegally residing parents. Cognizant of the widespread resentment against Haitian migrant workers in the general population, Dominican political leaders have shown no interest in taking on the issue of the protection of the rights of this large and disenfranchised portion of its population.

This situation has brought the issue of racism and nationalism that exists throughout the Western Hemisphere to light. Labor migration is a prevalent point of contention throughout many Latin American countries, but few are as discriminatory as the Dominican Republic is toward the Haitian portion of the Dominican population. Countries playing host to large communities of immigrants perceive it as a personal burden, even though in the case of the Dominican Republic, members of that country are, albeit to a smaller extent of its population, migrating to Puerto Rico and the United States in search of a better life.

The racial problems festering between the Dominican Republic and Haiti are profound and deeply entrenched within the former’s society. In an International Organization for Migration study, Elizabeth Thomas-Hope wrote, “Black racial characteristics and poverty produce xenophobic images of the Haitians by populations who are themselves black and attempting to rise from poverty.” The Haitians are distinguished by their darker skin color, and oftentimes they remain silent against the discrimination they face. In spite of representing a functioning group with an essential role in Dominican society, the social problems are found to be increasingly detrimental to the Haitian population in the Dominican Republic. Haitians contend that they have earned the right to citizenship through their participation in the growth of Dominican society, throughout its history, fair or foul.